2001-02 Horizon League Preview
by Brian Seymour
While doing research on the Internet, I had to jump through dozens of hoops — no pun intended — to get information about the Horizon League, which is evidence of a conference with a serious identity problem.
Of course, part of the identity crisis could be from the ever-evolving name of the conference. For those keeping score at home, the league began as the Midwestern City Conference in 1979, featured a revolving door lineup of schools until ultimately being renamed the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, then in June 2001 changing again to the Horizon League.
In the long term, changing the name is probably a good move. No longer will the league get confused with the Midwestern City Conference or the Mid-American Conference. In the short term — well, it’s a bit of an annoyance, as my web experience demonstrated.
It’s too bad really, because some pretty good hoops are played in the Midwestern — oops, Horizon League. To wit:
Exhibit A: Butler upset Wake Forest in the 2001 NCAA tournament and should have probably beaten Florida in the first round of the 2000 tournament. Only a last-second driving prayer from Mike Miller saved the Gators. You might remember Florida went on to lose in the national title game to Michigan State that year.
Exhibit B: Detroit Mercy has also done damage in the tournament recently, defeating St. John’s in 1998 and UCLA in 1999. They also made the Final Four of the NIT last season.
Exhibit C: Wright State handed eventual national champion Michigan State a loss in 2000.
The rest of the league isn’t rubbish either. Cleveland State had their famous upset over Indiana in 1986 and is pretty good this year. Wisconsin-Green Bay always scares the bejeezus out of the big schools with their aggressive defense and patient, Princeton-like offense. Illinois-Chicago usually checks in with a yearly upset over a “major” school and Horizon newcomer Youngstown State is in Youngstown. Who wants to make that road trip?
In the respect department, not helping matters is the location of Horizon schools — in bustling urban centers. I’ll put it this way — if you live in Chicago (or Milwaukee or Detroit or Cleveland or Indianapolis) there’s a lot of competition for your entertainment dollar. Mid-major college basketball is pretty far down on the list for many people and the newspapers in those towns have bigger fish to fry.
But that’s no reason to disregard the Horizon. You can bet whichever school draws the Horizon champion in the first round of the NCAA Tournament will be sweating a little bit.
Speaking of which, on with the preview (in projected order of finish):
1. Butler: The Bulldogs knocked off Radford, Delaware and Washington to win the Top of the World preseason tournament in Fairbanks, Alaska, their first regular season tournament championship in 53 years. If that ain’t an omen, I don’t know what is.
They’ll be the class of the Horizon this season, thanks to Thomas Jackson, voted preseason player of the year by the media. Not to get off the subject, but is there a dumber award anywhere than picking a player of the year BEFORE a minute is played? Jackson, a 5-foot-9 point guard, has had a stellar career at Butler, having led the league in assist/turnover ratio for each of the past two seasons. He also continues the Horizon’s streak of having the best “little man” in the country, taking over for Detroit Mercy’s Rashad Phillips.
Add the experience of senior forward Rylan Hainje and junior forward Joel Cornette — who both started every game with Jackson last season — and the Bulldogs have chemistry which can’t be matched by any team in the conference.
Something else to watch for will be the performance of new coach Todd Lickliter, Butler’s third coach in three years (truly the sign of an impressive mid-major program). Lickliter replaces Thad Matta, who moved to Xavier in the offseason.
2. Detroit Mercy: The Titans and the Bulldogs have quite the Coke-Pepsi rivalry going and this year shouldn’t be any different. If any team has the ability to dethrone Butler, it’s Detroit Mercy.
Detroit’s all-time leading scorer Rashad Phillips is gone to the NBA, but four other starters return, including Willie Green, a 6-foot-4 junior guard with playmaking ability. Chemistry is also going to be key to any success for the Titans. Four of the five projected starters are from Detroit and all five are from metro Detroit.
Coach Perry Watson is going be counting on Green and junior forward Terrell Riggs to pick up the scoring load from Phillips’ graduation.
The Titans have the third-longest home winning streak in the nation at 31 games, trailing only Michigan State and Iowa State. Their last loss? Butler, in January 1999. The streak will be in jeopardy early in the season with home games against Wyoming and Toledo in December, then Butler for the conference home opener on Jan. 10, 2002.
3. Cleveland State: Head coach Rollie Massimino has reestablished his contacts in Pennsylvania recruiting, giving this year’s Cleveland State squad a definite Keystone State flavor. Seven Vikings hail from Pennsylvania, including junior center Tahric Gosley, a specialist at blocking shots. Look for him to be near the nation’s leaders in blocks.
But the key player for Massimino’s hopes of returning Cleveland State to the glory days of the mid-80s is Theo Dixon, a 6-foot-6 senior who can play either shooting guard or small forward. Dixon will need to score 20-plus points a game and contribute defensively to give the Vikings a chance to ascend past the Horizon’s Big Two of Butler and Detroit Mercy.
4. Illinois Chicago: This could be a watershed year for coach Jimmy Collins. The Flames have been knocking at the door of the conference frontrunners for some time and this year, they have a nice blend of returning talent and fresh recruits.
The top returnees are forward Joe Scott and Jon-Pierre Mitchom, a senior guard, both of whom averaged just over 10 points a game last season.
Collins is also high on sophomores Martell Bailey, Cedrick Banks and Armond Williams, all of whom sat out last season because of eligibility requirements. They’ll make rookie mistakes, but expect the Flames to be a dangerous team come conference tourney time.
5. Wisconsin-Milwaukee: New coach Bruce Pearl has the wildcard team in the Horizon League. The Panthers have the talent to finish near the top of the league, but will they be able to adjust to a new coach and keep up with the strides made by the rest of the teams in the league.
Junior guard Clay Tucker was a first-team preseason all-conference selection after averaging 13.9 points per game last season. Four of the five starters return from last year’s 15-13 team.
6. Wright State: The Raiders are overshadowed nationally by Dayton, Cincinnati and Xavier in their own area, but it’ll be hard for Horizon teams to overlook them. The Raiders play a tough non-conference schedule which includes Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio) and Santa Clara and will be battle-tested for the conference season.
Junior guard Vernard Hollins averaged 19 points and 12.5 rebounds in Wright State’s two exhibition contests. Six-foot-seven senior forward Cain Doliboa is the top big man for a small Raiders team.
7. Wisconsin-Green Bay: The offseason didn’t treat the Phoenix very kindly as reserve freshman Calix N’daiye was suspended eight games for playing with a Norweigan professional team while a high schooler. The decision will only exacerbate a general lack of depth for UWGB, which saw three players go down with injuries early in the season. All are expected back in time for conference play.
Senior guard DeVante Blanks shoots anything but, having gone 8-of-12 from three-point range in the Phoenix’ two preseason contests.
8. Loyola Chicago: If the Ramblers climb out of the Horizon League basement, you can bet it will have something to do with David Bailey.
Bailey, a 5-foot-8 point guard, flew under a lot of radar screens last season en route to 17.3 points, 6.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. I repeat, a 5-foot-8 point guard who averaged 4.3 rebounds a game. The team surrounding Bailey is very generally young and unpolished, but it’ll be hard to overlook them towards the end of the season.
9. Youngstown State: The Penguins are celebrating their first season in the Horizon League and it’s hard to predict how they’ll do. YSU finished 19-12 overall and 11-5 last season in the Mid-Continent Conference, which is generally weaker than the Horizon.
One point in the Penguins favor is a starting lineup which includes four seniors. Guards Ryan Patton and Rafael Cruz both averaged just over 10 points a game last season. Another player to watch is freshman Doug Underwood, who scored 30 points in an exhibition contest against Argentina Select (no, not exactly Duke). Underwood is one of the few Horizon freshmen expected to get extensive playing time early in the season.
Predicted NCAA Tournament team: I’m going with Butler, but don’t count out Detroit Mercy or Cleveland State. Butler could build up the RPI to get an at-large berth if they stumble in the Horizon tournament. The rest of the teams likely won’t have that luxury.
Best player: Another neck and neck race between Butler and Detroit Mercy. Butler’s Thomas Jackson and Detroit’s Willie Green are the two most-hyped players in the league, but I think Theo Dixon from Cleveland State is going to have a breakout season. He could take the Vikings on his back in the conference tournament and lead them to the Big Dance.
Games of the year: Detroit at Butler on Feb. 7. It’ll be the second meeting between the two teams and will likely determine which team gets the top seed for the conference tournament. Don’t be surprised if there’s a third matchup later in the year.
Cleveland State at Florida State, Dec. 19. Granted, the Seminoles — to be somewhat charitable — suck. But they’re still an ACC team. Don’t be surprised if Cleveland State pulls off the upset.
Most underrated coach: Perry Watson of Detroit Mercy. No question. All this guy has done in his coaching career is win 90 percent of his games as a high school coach, help land and tutor the Fab Five at Michigan and build a more or less dormant program at Detroit Mercy into one of the top mid-majors in the country. Watson is a native Detroiter and may not want to move to a bigger program, but it’s a shame that he’s not mentioned for openings when they come up.
Least-likely coach to win another national title: Rollie Massimino of Cleveland State. No disrespect to the Vikings, they’ll challenge for Horizon title, but Rollie won’t be adding to the national title he won in 1985 with Villanova. Steve Fisher of San Diego State and Bob Knight of Texas Tech are close runners-up in this contest.
Coincidentally, with the hiring of Knight at Texas Tech and Rick Pitino at Louisville, the number of conferences with an active national championship coach is 10. That’s got to be an all-time record.
Go ahead and add them up — WAC (Jerry Tarkanian), Mountain West (Steve Fisher), Horizon (Rollie Massimino), Big 12 (Bob Knight), Conference USA (Rick Pitino), Big Ten (Tom Izzo), Big East (Jim Calhoun), SEC (Jim Harrick, Nolan Richardson and Tubby Smith), ACC (Mike Krzyzewski) and Pac 10 (Lute Olson).
More evidence that parity exists in college basketball.
Growing pains award: Youngstown State. The Penguins (and is there a cooler nickname than that in college hoops? — pun sort-of intended) were 19-11 in the Mid-Continent Conference, but this isn’t the Mid-Continent Conference. They won’t be beating up on the likes of UMKC, IUPUI and other alphabet soup retreads anymore. There won’t be gimmes for anyone in the conference — Butler included.
On the hot seat: Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Mike Heideman. The Phoenix are coming off two losing seasons and have been tabbed to finish seventh out of nine teams this year. With so much recent success, will another losing season be accepted in Green Bay? And if the Packers make it to the NFL playoffs, will anyone care? Heideman is in his seventh year, but the first few he was working with recruits from legendary coach Dick Bennett. He needs a strong campaign this season and a better than seventh place finish to keep the naysayers at bay.